Nat Friedman has interesting results up for his informal survey on computer frustration, noting that "About a third of these issues could be addressed by webbook efforts like ChromeOS and litl, although the webbook model will probably raise new issues as well."
Seems like a good time to discuss how we designed the litl webbook to reduce computer frustration.
We designed litl OS with Cooper, Pentagram, and our own design team. Cooper contributed a set of personas, adding to our own thinking about who would love the litl. We focus on busy families at home. While we have big dreams for how litl OS can evolve, for now we didn't think about work computing, ignoring the needs of business travelers and IT guys.
Windows will ask hundreds of questions busy families don't care about understanding. It's not that they can't understand, but they do not care. (The most famous example might be Vista's overzealous need to "Allow or Deny?"). We can say definitively that our audience doesn't care about this stuff, and so we don't ask it. Period.
As geeks, who have been spent our entire adult lives using and administering PCs, we tend to think the entire world is like us... the more the better... we want total control. Our research (and our own families) have shown that there's a huge portion of the world, such as busy moms, who only care about results. They don't care about tech specs, and they don't care about tweaking what Tufte calls "computer administrative debris."
As software developers, we don't realize how much worthless debris we put in front of people. Stuff they don't care about or don't need to know. At litl, we're trying to take a different approach.
If your favorite web app or web site fixes a bug, it isn't nagging you about whether you want the fix. You simply get the fix. We approached litl OS in the same way. litl OS is smart about avoiding updates while you're using the webbook, and quietly updates itself while you sleep.
File management is one of the more complex features of traditional operating systems, and litl OS avoids it entirely. Web apps just store their stuff, they don't ask you where to store it. We continue the entire OS in that spirit.
Applications on the litl don't have free run of the operating system. We have two kinds of "app"; web apps running in our browser, and channels. (Channels are a special kind of app with three states, one for lean-forward/laptop, one for lean-back/easel, and one widget-like state in card view.) Channels are run by a custom flash player in their own process.
This gives us a number of tools to control malware (since we don't have to distinguish it from "normal" unsandboxed apps), and it throws out all kinds of complexity associated with installing and updating traditional application software.
Sandboxing eliminates a whole class of "system integration" issues where applications interfere with one another or with the OS. On the litl, web pages and channels can't (and need not) install their own annoying updater software. They can't add tray icons to your screen. They can't break other apps in unforeseen ways.
Building for a single hardware platform throws out whole domains of complexity. There's no mess of interface on the litl related to hardware drivers; we know about our hardware already. We know which buttons are on the keyboard (and incidentally, a bunch of useless ones are not). We know the screen resolution.
This means no setup or configuration to start using the litl. It means our help and instructions can be precise - instead of "look for the key that says..." we can say "press the big blue key in the lower left." It means we can ship the litl preconfigured with information entered during the ordering process. It means any number of OS features "just work" instead of requiring tuning to the particular hardware the customer has.
The hard drive is the number one point of failure in PCs, and when it breaks, it's a disaster - you lose all your stuff. Best practice is to use the hard drive only as a cache, keeping a backup copy of everything on some web service. litl does this by default, going further to automatically manage the cache so it only has what you're actively using. No hard drive failures; no data loss; no setting up or managing backups.
The webbook model isn't all positive complexity-wise (yet) - as Nat says, it may raise new issues. Here's one: a litl OS design principle is to use any and all existing web services and apps, rather than reinventing the wheel. We decided to use web mail rather than create our own litl mail app, we decided to use Flickr and Shutterfly rather than invent our own photo storage and sharing site, and so forth. We see our goal as improving the web, and helping people use the web, rather than replacing the web with a "walled garden" of litl-branded services.
There's no question that a "walled garden" of services we controlled completely would be simpler and easier to use. But we don't think our customers would be happy as hothouse flowers. We want to be the best OS for using the whole Internet, rather than a limited appliance.
Internet and WiFi setup are tough to address, because problems on the access point side are outside litl's control. Still, on the litl itself, wifi configuration couldn't be simpler - we start with a big list of access points, instead of a tiny little tray icon. People need to recognize their network name and know their password. If they have those two things, we automate everything else.
Personal anecdote: I recently helped my sister fix her wifi; there were two problems, and both were caused by Windows complexity.
First, Dell had installed some garbage "wifi manager" software that interfered with Apple's AirPort software. On the litl, we don't ship OEM crapware.
Second, when you add a network, Windows opens this absurd, verbose dialog that makes no sense; she'd clicked the wrong answer. litl OS does not ask this sort of question, by design. If we don't think our customers care about a question, we don't ask it. (This has nothing to do with the webbook model per se; but it does have to do with our well-defined target audience. We know our customers don't care about this question.)
We've come a long way with litl OS, but there's a lot more we could do. Nat's survey mentions printing; we could automatically discover printers with no driver installation. He mentions performance; we could manage CPU usage of sandboxed sites and channels to keep the "too much stuff" problem (too many open sites) from degrading performance. We could much more extensively lock down the OS using SELinux-style technology, to further restrain malware. There are so many possibilities because the OS is truly managed on behalf of our customers, not managed by our customers when they have better things to do.
To be sure we get this right, we're planning to rotate the litl development team through customer support, giving every software developer firsthand knowledge of our customers.
We would love to hear your ideas on how to further reduce computer frustration - let us know!
We've had lots of great comments on the litl webbook (see here and here for samples). Some discussion about whether a "webbook" is really different from a "netbook." Here's why litl webbook is not a netbook.
Here's how litl webbook is like a netbook:
Here's my question: when you go shopping for a cell phone or set-top box, is your first question which CPU it runs? Would you choose iPhone vs. Blackberry based on which one had the fastest CPU clock? Or would you instead first look at what the device does, and in particular look at the details of the hardware and software experience?
Fast Company says
But litl isn't selling hardware specs; they're selling a stone-cold brilliant design. And to appreciate it, you have to be able to play with the device.
But for now, litl is only being sold online. And therein lies the problem. Without handling it, you'll never appreciate the thoroughness of the design language--the scroll wheel on the laptop, echoed in the scroll wheel of the remote; the perfectly weighted hinge which doubles as a handle and hides the battery; the sturdiness of the case; the brightness of the screen; the way the packaging and branding looks domestic but not quite feminine; or even the fact that when the power pack is plugged in, a tiny, embedded LED illuminates the dot of the '"i" in "litl"